Jason Moran's Bandwagon Packs Kennedy Center

Franz A. Matzner By

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Moran and his comrades pack the house because they consistently deliver a tremendously energetic show that challenges audiences
The year separating their debut at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club and last week's performance has been a good one for Jason Moran and his Bandwagon trio. The success of their album Live at the Village Vanguard secured Moran's standing as one of jazz's ascending stars, and the follow-up quartet release Same Mother has served to confirm Moran, Waits, and Mateen as musicians dedicated to pushing their own limits.

It has become almost impossible to open a jazz magazine, visit an on-line website, or check the local paper's pick of the week without stumbling over Moran's name, and no doubt this publicity contributed to the crowd that greeted the trio last Thursday night despite the snow and inclement weather. But the fact is that Moran and his comrades pack the house because they consistently deliver a tremendously energetic show that challenges audiences' musical intellect without sacrificing an ounce of entertainment.

Opening with, "Gangsterism on the Rise"?, a continuation of Moran's series of compositions blending urban themes with more classic jazz improve. Moran, Waits, and Mateen blazed through the hard-hitting tune, displaying their characteristic ability to play fluidly at tempos that might make dedicated electronica fans blush.

As Moran explained, the night's second piece, " You Got to Be Modernistic"?—written in 1928—acts as an apt motto for the band's creative philosophy. As evidenced by the evening's performance, Moran's concept of modernistic means more than galloping from one "new"? style to the next. More than a specific set of sounds or rhythms, being modernistic for Moran represents a dedication to seeking, and for Moran that seeking includes closing the circle between past and present, or — perhaps more accurately —keeping past and present in a constant flux that simultaneously recognizes no boundaries while honoring the specific tones, spaces, and meaning of past contributors and periods.

As if to confirm this, Moran next embarked on a medley of Ellington tunes, incorporating themes from "Kind of Dukish"?, "Black and Tan Fantasy"? and "Body and Soul"?. Throughout this dynamic piece the three musicians moved frenetically from tempo to tempo, seemingly bending time and rhythm to their collective wills, moving segments of the source material around like puzzle pieces, clearly more interested in the restive process of configuration than recreating the original picture.

Hitting their stride, the band turned next to a raucous roadhouse blues powered by Waits' heavy hitting beats and dominated by Mateen's stellar bass work. This piece once again blended such a vast tapestry of techniques, references, and ingenious twists that it transformed into a crowd pleasing sound essay on the blues tradition.

Moran next led the trio through another extended group improvisation based on themes from a widely disparate array of material, including a Bach concerto. Transitioning from one emotional territory to another, all three musicians displayed both their tremendous capacities as soloists, and a perhaps even more distinctive ability to work as a group and carry the audience to new musical spaces.

The night concluded with another blues piece, "I'll Play the Blues for You,"? yet another example of Moran's dedication to historical continuity. Weaving lines of both force and grace, Moran took the lead, building on the tunes funky theme to create an evocative finale.

As the crowd departed, the only disappointment was that the Bandwagon had finished right on time and left the stage without an encore. Moran and his Bandwagon have clearly mastered the art of live performance, balancing well-rehearsed showmanship with improvisatory fire.

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